At Lincoln Center Festival, Danes Excel in Nielsen and Stravinsky

United StatesUnited States Lincoln Center Festival: Nielsen, Stravinsky, Svendsen : John Kruse (clarinet) Tuva Semmingsen (mezzo-soprano), Peter Lodahl (tenor), Jochen Kupfer (bass), Royal Danish Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Kaplan Penthouse, New York City, 28-30.7.2011 (BH)

Thursday, July 28

Nielsen : Pan and Syrinx, Op. 49 (1917-18)
: Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 (1928)
: Pulcinella (complete) (1919-20, rev. 1965)

Saturday, July 30

Svendsen : String Octet in A major, Op. 3
: Wind Quintet in A major, Op. 43

Quick quiz: What would be your best guess for the world’s oldest orchestra? It wouldn’t be either the Vienna Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic, both founded in 1842, and it was forty years later that the Berlin Philharmonic came into being (1882). The winner, the Royal Danish Orchestra, has these beat by a country mile: it can trace its origins back to 1448 – over 550 years ago. And since the ensemble rarely comes to New York, its appearances here for the Lincoln Center Festival were especially welcome.

The orchestra has always had a special relationship with Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and opened the evening at Alice Tully Hall with his water sprite of a piece, Pan and Syrinx, which he wrote in less than two weeks. Scarcely ten minutes long, it details Syrinx being chased by Pan and then seeking help from the river nymphs, who turn her into water reeds, which Pan then transforms into his flute. Nielsen’s delightful romp uses five percussionists, with prominent xylophone and glockenspiel, and a bevy of captivating woodwind solos. A sighing cello at the end could indicate either of two options: Syrinx’s resignation or Pan’s delight in capturing her.

More ambitious is the composer’s extravagant, episodic Clarinet Concerto, notable for its scoring: in addition to strings, it has but two bassoons, two horns, and a snare drum – the latter instrument echoing its amusing, dramatically disruptive role in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (1921-22). Soloist John Kruse, jacket-less in a lighthearted neon green shirt, raced and growled his way through the complex solo line, while the small ensemble alternated playful folk-tinged sequences with outbursts of surprising vehemence, until like Pan and Syrinx, the quiet ending settled into view. Michael Schønwandt led authoritative readings of each of these works – rarely seen in concert halls here – with adroit playing from the ensemble and Mr. Kruse’s star turn framed by an appealing modesty.

After intermission, Schønwandt led a sparkling reading of Stravinsky’s complete ballet, Pulcinella, with three committed soloists. The Overture, bright and vigorous, set the tone for the orchestra’s refreshing spray, and here and there Schønwandt sashayed back and forth on the podium with obvious pleasure. Tenor Peter Lodahl kicked things off with sculptured phrasing in “Mentre l’erbetta / Pasce l’agnella” (“While the new grass / Feeds the ewe lamb”) and his enunciation in the skittering “Un ate falan zemprece” (“One pretends to be simple-hearted”) was amusingly right on target.

Soprano Tuva Semmingsen sounded particularly lovely in “Se tu m’ami, se tu sospiri” (“If you love me, if you sigh”) with careful attention to intonation, and bass Jochen Kupfer might have had the most imposing voice, noticeably in “Con queste paroline” (“With such sweet”). The three singers combined beautifully with solemn wit in “Pupillette, fiammette” (“Eyes, flames”) in the finale.

Two nights later (flanking a single performance of Poul Ruders’s opera, Selma Ježková), members of the orchestra reunited for an appealing chamber music concert in the Kaplan Penthouse, made all the more appetizing with a summer sunset behind the venue’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The evening began with the String Octet of Johan Svendsen, written when the young composer was studying with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig. The language is cheerful without being brash, with a central Andante sostenuto that made the biggest impression here. The effervescent finale brings to mind the merriment of Britten’s Simple Symphony, and the Danish string players were obviously enjoying themselves.

As a piece, however, the Octet was slightly trumped by Nielsen’s Wind Quintet – shorter but with even more compositional sophistication (not surprisingly, since Nielsen was much further along in his career). The composer was inspired by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and its translucent approach, allowing each of the five instruments to be heard as equals. With some particularly fine work from bassoonist Jørgen Bracht Nielsen and Lasse Mauritzen on horn, the players – all standing for the performance – showed the unique strength of the orchestra’s winds.

Bruce Hodges